Italy’s Romano against the French block of Ngapeth and Chinenyeze

Friday is a day off at the men’s Volleyball Nations League Finals in Bologna, but it’s just the calm before the storm as pulsating semifinals are on their way on Saturday and will determine which two teams compete for the 2022 title in Sunday’s final. Poland and the United States meet in the first semifinal at 18:00 local time (16:00 GMT) and hosts Italy entertain France three hours later, and both matches are extremely difficult to predict!

· Watch all VNL 2022 matches live on Volleyball TV.

USA were the first team to advance to the semifinals after winning Wednesday’s opening quarterfinal against Brazil, ousting last year’s champions in a four-set match. Poland were the last squad to join the final four after emerging victorious from a thrilling five-setter against Iran on Thursday. Both qualified teams finished with a 10-2 win-loss record in the Preliminary Phase with Poland placing second on 31 points and USA third on 27.

Neither team is new to the VNL semifinals. Both have reached this stage of the competition twice before. The North Americans took bronze in 2018 and silver in 2019, and the Europeans claimed bronze in 2019 and silver in 2021.

Their semifinal encounter on Saturday will be the 43rd time the two teams meet at a major international competition. Poland lead the head-to-head series by 22 to 20. They edged forward by winning the two most recent meetings, by 3-0 at VNL 2021, and 3-1 (21-25, 25-23, 26-24, 25-22) earlier in this year’s competition.

Polish captain Bartosz Kurek, the star opposite, who was named MVP of last year’s VNL, delivered the match high of 23 points in that last game on June 26. Outside hitters Kamil Semeniuk (15) and Aleksander Sliwka (13) also reached double digits in scoring, while middle Jakub Kochanowski impressed with four kill blocks. Outsides Aaron Russell and Torey Defalco scored 16 and 14 points, respectively, on the American side, while captain David Smith produced three stuffs. He went on to become the third best blocker of the Preliminary Phase on a total of 27.

Italy also finished the Preliminary Phase on a 10-2 win-loss record and 31 points, but topped the final standings on a better set ratio than Poland’s. France were fourth on 9-3 and 28. In the quarterfinals, Italy knocked out the Netherlands in four sets on Wednesday, and France disposed of Japan in three.

The Italians advanced to the VNL semifinals for the first time in history. They finished eighth in 2018 and 2019 and 10th in 2021. For France, however, it will be the third final four in the competition. In 2018, they reached the final and settled for silver. In 2021, they took bronze.

The long-lasting rivalry between the two European neighbours has gone through as many as 57 encounters at major world-level competitions. Before the 58th meeting on Saturday, Italy lead the way with 35 wins, against 22 for France. They have been alternating victories in the VNL, with Italy winning in 2018 and 2021, and France celebrating in 2019 and 2022, but it will be the first time they meet at a VNL Finals. The two teams opened their VNL 2022 campaigns on June 9, playing against each other in Ottawa. The French hammered out a 3-0 (25-22, 26-24, 25-19) shutout.

Italian opposite Yuri Romano was the best scorer of that match. He tallied 16 points, while his setter and captain Simone Giannelli put away four kill blocks. French star outside Earvin Ngapeth contributed 13 points to his team’s success. Middle blocker Barthelemy Chinenyeze added another 11.

The winners of the two semifinals will meet on Sunday at 21:00 local time (19:00 GMT) in the final showdown for the trophy. They will be writing history since whichever of the four candidates take the VNL 2022 crown, it will be their first. Three hours earlier, the two losing semifinalists will lock horns for bronze.